By Curt Wagner, @ShowPatrol
3:22 PM CDT, September 3, 2012
Philip Winchester's character, Sgt. Michael Stonebridge, has been wrestling some heavy demons in the new season of "Strike Back."
In the season premiere, he was forced to kill one of his Special Air Service trainees. The trainee's brother, former special forces soldier Craig Hanson, got his twisted vengeance by killing Stonebridge's wife. The murder pushed Stonebridge, as his Section 20 partner Sgt. Damian Scott (Sullivan Stapleton) said in the Aug. 31 episode, down a rabbit hole.
The usually level-headed Stonebridge seemingly has switched places with his more unpredictable, fiery brother-in-arms Scott. He lost his cool and beat the crap out of Othmani, the courier hiding nuclear triggers. He pummeled a Tuareg man in a supposedly friendly wrestling match. And when he came face-to-face with Othmani's terrorist brother, El Soldat (shown in the scene above), he insisted that Scott take a shot and kill the terrorist, even though one of El Soldat's snipers was targeting Stonebridge.
Stonebridge doesn't have a death wish, Winchester said, but he's definitely become more reckless as a result of his personal demons. It's a change in character that Winchester enjoyed exploring this season.
"It was really fun to go through those scenes and at the end of scenes sometimes Sully and I would look at each and we'd have a little laugh and go, 'Well, that was different. That wasn't last year, was it?'" Winchester told me during a recent phone call from Montana, where he and his wife were busy preparing to move into their new home. "When stuff like that happens it's fun because, like real life, you surprise yourself and sometimes you go places you didn't think you could go or you wouldn't allow yourself to go. We tried to bring that kind of stuff into these characters this year."
"That kind of stuff" happens in the scene after Stonebridge walks away from El Soldat, when Scott challenges Stonebridge about his state of mind. They once again trade humorous barbs, but this time Scott shows genuine concern for his friend.
This kind of banter is one of the show's strengths, and it's the result of the actors' improvisation that often comes from their own relationship, Winchester said.
“Sometimes we have to play around with the words in scenes, and our natural banter—him taking the piss [out of me] and me just copping it on the chin until I blow up—that happens naturally,” he said, laughing. “So we don’t have to go searching for it.”
Winchester and I talked more about how he and Stapleton work together and how that informs what happened in Ep. 14 between Stonebridge and Scott, and in the series generally. We also reviewed Stonebridge’s state of mind this season, and talked about Winchester's transition to taking time off in Montana.
"Strike Back" airs new episodes each Friday at 9 p.m. CT on Cinemax. You can watch the two-hour season premiere on YouTube and the season so far on MaxGo.
How’s the house?
It’s just great. I’m still in the rental property right now but this morning it was kind of funny. We’re sleeping in; we’re on holiday … before the big press tours for the show kicks off again. I think to be able to sit in Montana and just watching the mountains and just hang out with like-minded people. It’s very cool. It’s such a cool community. So we’re really excited and [my wife] did an amazing job with the house, so I was thrilled.
Is it nice to just be home in Montana?
Totally. There’s that sense of peace when you’re in a familiar place. The first couple days we were walking around downtown and she was saying, “Baby, you don’t have to check every time someone walks behind us. Like we’re not in Johannesburg anymore. You can drop your radar a little bit.” … We were so used to having to have out wits about us so much in Johannesburg everywhere we filmed the show.
When we were in the car at San Diego Comic Con, a motorcycle drove past us and I asked if after filming a season of the show and you're back home and a car comes up close do you have residual “worry,” I guess, from having to watch all around you while in character.
This year has been a lot better. My wife actually called me on it last year … About a month-and-a-half after getting back last year, she looked at me and said, “Well, it’s nice to have you back, Philip.”
So it took me awhile to get out of that place. I think a lot of the reason behind that was, for me, I didn’t know who Stonebridge was [last year]. I had to find him, I had to work with Sully to figure out who these characters were, what their relationship was, how they dealt with things, how they didn’t deal with things. So last year was this period where you’re fully immersing yourself in the character and you’re exploring the whole time, and you’re making mistakes and then you’re correcting them.
The second year—this year—when we went back I knew who Stonebridge was. I knew where he was at and I was able to step back into him right away without kind of having to take those big unknown risks and dive in. He went different places this year and that was more challenging, but I already had a base to balance from. It wasn’t “easier,” but the character was already there. So I didn’t have to find that place and go to that dark place.
So this year after finishing the show the transition’s been a lot smoother, and I think the blessing of having a house to come back to and all that cool stuff has made it [easier]. I like to have something to do. I like to work. I have a project; I’m out staining deck chairs or telling our builders where to do certain things in the house. I’m able to kind of just forget about the show and throw myself into something else.
Stars; they’re just like us.
Stars. [Laughs.] I don’t—that just sounds funny, man.
You're too modest. ... You talked about the good grasp you guys got on your characters last year. Now this year they have a bit of a role reversal. Scott seems to be the more stable one. How was that curveball for you guys?
[Laughs.] Like I said, I think it was easier to go there after actually having our foundation we were ready to go kind of wherever. But what was funny was you read the scripts and I have an idea of what Sully’s probably going to do and he probably has an idea of what I’m going to do. Yet when we come in on the day and it happens it is always a surprise because we don’t have a ton of time to prepare.
There’s a lot of improvisation going on in our scenes because of just the relationship we have. We’re lucky enough that the producers and the directors know that and they let us do that. So a lot of that role reversal came out of improvisation in a scene where when we kind of thought about Sully’s character last year where he dealt with stuff and this year his admittance to being in a similar place in his past. So I kind of used that as fuel for where I wanted Stonebridge to go and how far I wanted him to go down that dark path before Scott ultimately kind of saves him [in Ep. 4] and says, “Look, man, you can’t do this or you’ll end up like me.”
… Stonebridge is that consummate professional. His life is soldiering; his life is being the go-to guy. So once he started to slip away and once Scott called him on it, I think realizing that he was losing everything that he’d worked for was the thing that brought him back from the brink. And of course, you know, having a buddy to talk to about it.
We were really concerned this year that we didn’t kind of just overshoot the stuff between the two characters. We didn’t want to not have these characters sit down and have a discussion about how hard it was doing what they do and how Stonebridge had been caught out and he was going some place he never had to go before. If he wanted to remain a soldier and a professional, he had to sit down and work it out. …
There’s a scene in Ep. 3 where Scott says, “If you ever want to talk about it I’m here, or we can just go out and get fucked up.” There’s a more serious one in Ep. 4. It’s a cliché word but that bromance between the two of you is always so fun because it never gets too sweet or “aw shucks”-y. Corny, I guess.
[Laughs.] There’s always that element of edge to it, isn’t there? And I think that you touched on it earlier. It’s just lucky that it happens to be Sully that I’m working with because I think that comes out of our natural respect and banter with each other as Philip and Sully, and that translates into Scott and Stonebridge, you know? So it’s nice that we don’t have to really look for that. It kind of just happens.
Stonebridge has a tough time after his wife’s murder. At the beginning of Ep. 3 he says, “I just want to do what I do best: soldiering.” What is his state of mind at the time and he secretly wants to find Craig Hanson, right?
Yeah, absolutely. It doesn’t look like Stonebridge is grieving. It looks like he’s just coping. He’s dealing with stuff, isn’t he? He’s doing it how we would expect Stonebridge to do it; he’s being professional and he’s being still. He’s reassuring the psychiatrist and I think that obviously his motivation is, “If I can just find Hanson and encourage myself with this and then maybe I can deal with it, but my first thing is to be a guy about it and I’ve got to find Hanson and I’ve got to take him out.”
That’s how I kind of approach that bit. In that psych ward scene I don’t think he’d grieved in the real sense of the word. He hadn’t sat down with family members and friends and walked through what happened. But in his own mind, he said, “All right, I’m going to put that over here, I’m going to compartmentalize it and then I’m going to deal with what happened; I’m going to deal with who caused it and then I can move on.”
Obviously, that takes us through the rest of the show is him compartmentalizing, it kind of rearing it’s head, the pain, the guilt, all that stuff, and then the realization that when it does confront Hanson, what’s he going to do about it.
Stonebridge has survivor guilt, guilt over killing the brother, a little bit of PTSD. Do you think that Stonebridge, who keeps things so locked in, is more messed up because of that than say Scott, who sort of physically gets rid of his demons through sex?
I absolutely agree with that. And that was one of the things we decided to do this year: Stonebridge would act out violently. He was acting out more violently; he wasn’t acting out sexually like Scott does.
We were sitting down discussing fight scenes and I was like, “I’m going to use this fight as a vessel to get rid of some of that anger and some of that anxiety and that guilt.” So in Episode 3, for example, when they get a hold of [Othmani] on the bus, there’s that fight and he’s just smashing the guy. I don’t think he cares if he kills him. He’s just getting rid of it, you know what I mean?
So I do absolutely think that Stonebridge uses violence and the anger that he suppresses all the time, and again, I think that’s another reason why his relationship with Scott gets strained because he looks at Scott at goes, “Son of a bitch. How come your attitude and the way that you live your life—you obviously planned this out because it aids in how you deal with things. I haven’t been able to do that and it’s fucking me up.” So it creates more tension between these two guys and ultimately creates opportunities for Scott to sit down and say, “Look, bud. You got to sort this shit out or you’re going to not only end up like me but you’re going to disappear.”
OK, so going back to the first episode that sets up Stonebridge’s season-long arc with Craig Hanson. Did Stonebridge actually have to shoot Jake Hanson in the head or could he have just shot him in the arm or the leg?
[Chuckles.] We really went over this on set and I went over it with the military guys and their training is such that you take out a threat. These guys are not police officers; they’re not trained to calm the situation and keep both sides alive. Their training is to remove threats; walk in, grab the hostage, remove threat.
We talked about it in this situation was Jake has his finger on the trigger, he has another trainee in his sights—it doesn’t take that much to pull that trigger and blow this guy’s brains out. So the only way to deal with the situation properly and because of the years of training are you take him out. They’re wearing webbing, they’ve got body armor on, and so it was the head shot.
And obviously, story point, we had to go there in order to kind of create this tension and create this story arc for the next 10 episodes, but there was a lot of discussion on set. Can we shoot him in the leg and then walk up to him and then he has to shoot him? We made it two shots and then it just became too convoluted and too sinister. If it was just one clean kill he gets rid of the threat, he saves the other guy’s life in the process. It was a conflict in discussing that and I’m not really sure how the audience is going to take that, but obviously it puts Stonebridge in a very uncomfortable situation…
And it just continues to snowball through the rest of the season.
So with Stonebridge and Scott having a role reversal, does that mean that we’ll see more Stonebridge sex scenes later this season?
[Laughs.] In a short answer—no. [Laughs.] We joke about it now because he’s got like one or two every episode. But no it didn’t happen. The producers brought it up to me at the end of the year again saying we like that that there’s a different way that you guys deal with your stress, there’s a different way you guys deal with your PTSD.
Scott has to go out and look for it in women whereas Stonebridge internalizes it a lot more. … Let me just say, I’m happy that I don’t have to do the sex scenes and who knows if we go another year what the verdict’s going to be on that one. [Laughs.] I’m quite happy that we leave Philip out of that. [Laughs.]
Just to get it on record definitively: Are you sure you’re not jealous?
[Laughs.] Not at all.
Odd question, but I’m asking anyway: Do you have a favorite curse word or phrase?
[Laughs.] I think my personal favorite one is “bollocks.” I think bollocks is a great swear word. It can be great, like “That was the bollocks,” or it can be terrible: “That was bollocks,” you know? I just think it’s a very versatile British swear word; I think it’s wonderful.
"Strike Back" takes real world situations and uses them in its stories. Mogadishu, child soldiers, dirty bombs in bodies are examples. Has doing the show made you more aware of what’s going on in the world?
I’m much more up on my current events. I’m reading the paper or checking the news and also just more aware of my surroundings—especially when I’m out in public. I’m not paranoid, but I’m certainly a lot more just, like I said, just aware of what’s going on when I walk into a restaurant—where I sit, where the exits are—things like that.
It was so hammered in to us in our training that by putting yourselves in certain places you have a better outcome of surviving if something happens. So, I think maybe just a little more aware of that.
Whether or not you use that in your real life or you just forget about it and go into your next role is up to you, but I think it’s coming in handy and I think it’s something that’s always fascinated me and it’s something that I have a huge respect for. And now that I’ve been able to kind of dip my toe into it a little bit it’s something that I’d like to keep close to me for as long as I can, you know?
And just the respect for those guys—soldiers across the board, whether it’s special operatives or just soldiers working on the weekend—I just have a huge respect for them and what they do and what they put themselves up against. So it’s definitely changed my psyche on that.
Were surprised by the reception the show received for Season 1?
Yeah, I was absolutely surprised, and so was Sully. Last fall we were walking down the street in New York, and I think the show had just aired and they had the big posters up. … Sully noticed a couple of guys kind of stop and do a double take. Then they walked over to us and they’re like, “Oh, my God. You are the guys from ‘Strike Back.’” We both just assumed they worked over at HBO because we were kind of in that neighborhood. So I think we asked them, “Yeah, do you guys work at HBO?” And they’re like, “No, no. We’re just fans of the show.” I think you just go, “Oh, that’s neat. There are two people who watch the show and we happened to run into them.”
Then it kept happening. It happened in Vegas, it happened back in New York again. It happened when I was out with my wife or just out with buddies. It slowly started to dawn on me that there were actually people watching the show, enjoying the show. It was a huge surprise because I’ve been acting professionally for about 11 or 12 years. I’m one of the fortunate ones; I’ve made a living as an actor that whole time. There have been slow times; I’ve been on network television and I’ve had the lead in stuff, and it just didn’t land for whatever reason. So I think I probably brought that to this job, not the expectation that it wouldn’t work, but the attitude that I was going to throw myself into the work, forget about the end result, and just do what I thought was right. That’s exactly what happened last year. We disappeared for six months down in South Africa and then up in Budapest.
We were having a good time, we got a good grasp of the characters, but we didn’t really know what the reply was going to be from the public until we got to New York and started to hear [it]. There was a little ground swell and we started going, “Hang on a second. People are talking about the show. People dig the show.” I think the big help was Cinemax and HBO really put their money where their mouths were and they stuck billboards up in New York and Los Angeles. They put us on the front of buses and phone booths. They really did the groundwork as well, so all that stuff helped.
Heck yeah, I was surprised. … It really caught me off guard when people started saying, “Dude, you guys have a great show.”
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